The Adirondack Forest Preserve is celebrated as one of the world’s best-protected wilderness reserves, but of course this is New York State, not the distant, untrodden surface of Venus; with precious few exceptions all of the lands that are now “forever wild” were once privately owned, and many parcels were developed to one degree or another before the state acquired them for the Forest Preserve. If you’ve enjoyed any of the Adirondack Park’s “blockbuster” purchases over the last quarter-century, such as Little Tupper Lake, Round Lake, the Essex Chain of Lakes, Boreas Ponds, or Madawaska Flow, you have explored land that was once populated by dozens of modest hunting camps.
I was an early visitor at all of these properties, exploring their secrets while the ink was still wet on the deeds. In 1998, just weeks after the “William C. Whitney Area” opened to the public, I found a small cabin on the north shore of Little Tupper Lake that even DEC staff didn’t seem to know about. At Madawaska Flow in 2004 and Round Lake in 2006, I ventured into recently abandoned cabins that stood on expired leases, quietly awaiting their demolition. These structures reminded me that what I had come to explore as “wilderness” had been perceived and used as something slightly different a few years earlier.
Because of these experiences, as well as my interest in Adirondack history, I have never been deluded into thinking our wilderness is a people-less place; it may be the natural landscape that attracts me and fills my daydreams, but I am also familiar with (and fascinated by) the human story that haunts the Forest Preserve.
In all of the land acquisitions noted above, the status of the buildings was a key consideration on which many eyes were focused. In some cases the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) – the primary custodian of the Forest Preserve – contracted to have the hunting camps removed after they had been vacated. On the former Finch Pruyn lands, it was The Nature Conservancy (the organization that brokered the state’s purchase) who had responsibility for ensuring the removal of all the lease camps by the end of 2018.
While seeing these camps informed me of the recent human history of the land, I very much supported their removal; the primary goal of adding land to the Forest Preserve, after all, is to preserve open spaces, not low-budget DIY architecture. All of the camps I encountered were modest structures, at the opposite end of the aesthetic scale of a Durant-style Great Camp. Many were sided with plywood and lined with drywall; the dens were appointed with mid-century Naugahyde loungers, relics of extinct home décor tastes. Towering stacks of square-sided cinder blocks formed the chimneys.
I have no doubt these camps were home to many fond memories for the people who built them, maintained them, and came here for a few weeks of outdoor bliss every year, but they stood on stamp-sized parcels leased from corporations who no longer wished to play the role of landlord. The cabins had long since served their purpose.
Slow-Motion Acquisitions with Complicated Terms
These modern state land acquisitions were conducted with tremendous public interest and oversight, and the lease camps were removed on tight schedules to meet the firm requirements of Article XIV of the state’s constitution. In all of these cases, the purchase terms required the lease camps to be removed by a set date, never more than five years after the state took title to the land, with demolition responsibilities clearly spelled out. The plots on which the cabins stood have all been rehabilitated to erase all signs they had ever been occupied.
But this has not always been the case. There was a long stretch of time during the 1970s and 1980s in which Forest Preserve acquisitions were less common, more cumbersome to execute, and often subject to long-term use reservations. Lease camps weren’t removed, just burned to the ground, the metal hardware left to rust on-site for all eternity.
And sometime, even this step never happened.
With no land conservancies to facilitate the purchases, and with increasing bureaucratic requirements to slow the process, Forest Preserve acquisition slowed to a crawl in the 1970s after ninety years of spectacular growth. Yes, there were blockbuster deals at Lake Lila, Lows Lake, and the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, but the state’s bids to buy Kings Flow (near Indian Lake) and Pine Lake (near Piseco) imploded when private buyers acted faster than the sluggish state bureaucracy.
One way to make the state’s dollar go farther – and thus acquire more acreage – was to incorporate long-term use reservations in the purchase agreements. At the Fisher Forestry Tract near Stillwater, for instance, the seller was permitted to continue logging the land several years after the state acquired it. At Debar Pond, a magazine publisher held onto a 25-year lease for a 1940s-era log camp – the continued existence of which may force a constitutional amendment.
Debar Pond, acquired by the state in 1979, is an extreme example that will likely remain a headline in regional news for the next few years. But as we discuss the fate of that camp, few people are aware that Debar Pond Lodge has three poor cousins, each of which has been languishing in hidden corners of the Forest Preserve for decades.
The Forgotten Cabins of the Forest Preserve
The oldest of these cabins – and the least secretive – stands in the Ferris Lake Wild Forest near Caroga Lake. If you have never heard of Hillabrandt Vly, it’s probably because you’re not a snowmobiler residing in Fulton County. But a locally popular snowmobile trail on state land passes the front steps of a humble camp the state acquired in 1979 and never took down.
This particular camp qualifies as a well-known secret. Although the outhouse and woodshed have deteriorated beyond recognition, the camp itself remains structurally sound, albeit with a leaky roof (and perhaps enough mice to feed a cat for a year). But the cabinet is well stocked with staples – presumably for the benefit of campers and “lost” hunters – and the firewood supply seems to be replenished every year. Though “abandoned,” someone has been keeping it marginally habitable.
This cabin at Hillabrandt was briefly mentioned years ago in a draft management plan for the Ferris Lake Wild Forest as a problem site the state needed to address, but the author of that plan took a new job in Albany and the document was never completed. As far as I know, the Hillabrandt cabin is a simple oversight – known by DEC, but tolerated for whatever reason for forty-two years.
Two other Forest Preserve cabins have more complicated stories, both involving those complicated land deals concocted by the Mario Cuomo administration.
In 1988, the same year Die Hard and Who Framed Roger Rabbit hit movie theaters, the state purchased the last remaining tract within the popular Moose River Plains recreation area. This deal immediately opened thousands of acres near the Cedar River Flow to the public, but another 1,000 acres surrounding Little Moose Lake were subjected to an exclusive-use lease agreement.
In less technical terms, this means that the 1,000-acre parcel was officially part of the forever-wild Forest Preserve, even though a hunting club was allowed to post the land against public access for nearly twenty years. The public was not permitted to explore Little Moose Lake until 2007, after the lease permanently expired.
When the hunting club vacated the land, they left their lakeside camp behind – as well as a woodshed and a decades-old garbage dump. When I first visited Little Moose in 2008, the camp looked like it had been rendered uninhabitable upon abandonment; structurally it was fine, but the interior walls had been smashed and most of the furnishings had been removed. I assumed at the time a state work crew would come in due time to finish the job.
Not so. The cabin still stood in 2010 when Little Moose Lake was added to the West Canada Lake Wilderness, the upside of a compromise intended to preserve the popular roadside campsites in the nearby Moose River Plains.
And it still stood in 2020, when I returned to Little Moose for the first time in a decade. Not only could I see no evidence DEC had visited the site, it was clear the abandoned cabin – decrepit as it was – had been attracting campers. A group of hunters from Ohio went so far as to post stickers identifying themselves all over the place, as well as to nail a “posted” sign next to the front door, as if to discourage others from “trespassing” in their lair.
The Old Proulx Bunkhouse
A third cabin many miles to the north has a similar story to tell.
A year after the Little Moose purchase, New York completed one of its more obscure land purchases in 1989. The Otterbrook Tract was a 7,500-acre sliver of land north of Lows Lake that had once been part of the Emporium Forest Company’s logging empire. Named for the company that sold the land, Otterbrook was newsworthy at the time but included no must-see destinations of its own; the primary value of the purchase was to connect the Cranberry Lake area with the Horseshoe Lake Wild Forest.
Like Little Moose Lake, the Otterbrook Tract included an extended exclusive-lease agreement with a hunting club. In this case, the club was allowed to maintain a remote cabin through the end of 2005. When the lease expired, the club vacated the premises but left their camp behind.
I first visited the site in July 2007 while exploring what was then the proposed route of the Cranberry Lake 50 Trail. An early version of that long-distance trail led hikers straight to the abandoned camp at Sucker Brook, and once again I assumed DEC would soon be along to finish the job of demolishing the structure. Therefore I explored the place thinking it would be gone the next time I came this way.
The Emporium Forest Company was one of the Adirondack’s largest logging operations, even though it was comparatively short-lived. Forget your romantic notions of plaid-clad Paul Bunyans riding logs down a wild river; Emporium was firmly planted in the technology-focused twentieth century, and they hauled their logs to mill via an elaborate, purpose-built railroad network. But a few of the old traditions persisted, such as contracting out certain jobs with independent operators, and one such jobber named Proulx built a camp beside Sucker Brook populated by camps with distinctive vertical logs during the 1910s.
Although I was not yet aware of that connection in 2007, the structure I visited that summer day also had vertical log siding. The first room was an old-style bunk room, and further inside I found a rudimentary shower and a modern-ish kitchen – all of it abandoned for at least two years, but clearly built many years before I was born.
A year later, after the Cranberry Lake 50 Trail officially opened to the public, I returned to this area. My friends and I didn’t see the cabin, but at the same time I noticed the trail had been conspicuously rerouted to avoid the clearing where it stood.
Fast forward to 2020, after I had returned to Little Moose Lake to find that cabin still standing. Otterbrook came to mind again after many years, and when Google’s online library of satellite photos showed a roof still standing right where I remembered it, I found time to make a return visit.
Dozens of hikers now pass close to the old Otterbrook cabin without the slightest notion it still exists, thanks to the above-mentioned reroute. But exist it does, even though the land was added to the Five Ponds Wilderness in 2009. Time had been especially cruel to this structure, rendering that “modern-ish” kitchen a structural disaster, but like Little Moose there was no sign DEC had been here. There were no signs state engineers had condemned the building, no signs a work crew had visited the site to prepare a demolition.
This was a cabin built during the years Woodrow Wilson was president; New York bought the land the same year George H. W. Bush moved into the White House, and the lease expired well after his son, George W. Bush, took his second oath of office. But now, in the waning weeks of the Trump administration, DEC needed a reminder the place ever existed.
Decades Too Late
If, like me, you believe in the sanctity of the Forest Preserve and think such structures have no use in the backcountry, take heart: in January 2021 I wrote to DEC on behalf of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates to remind the state of its strict legal obligations to remove the cabins at Hillabrandt Vly, Little Moose Lake, and Otterbrook. We were politely advised that the department would look into the matter.
On the other hand, if you believe the Adirondack architectural heritage should be preserved – or that the wilderness should be peppered with huts for public recreation – you are likely several decades too late. Otterbrook, which in my opinion has the strongest claim to any historic significance, is in horrific condition. Little Moose is hardly any better; it has a gaping hole in its roof and a mat of moss growing on its floor. Hillabrandt Vly is essentially a tar-paper shack with wannabe Ku Klux Klan graffiti scribbled timidly in pencil on its front door.
None of these come close to the status of Debar Pond – the preservation value of which I have yet to be convinced, but which is nevertheless in a class apart. All three cabins have been neglected long after they’ve had any legal justification to remain, and two now stand in areas that have been pledged to the cause of wilderness preservation.
None can stay. Not only is the law clear on this, but their obvious states of deterioration have made them public safety hazards. I’ve been reluctant to publicize this topic too much in the fear that writing about the cabins would have the adverse effect of inspiring the curious-minded to seek them out, but if too much time passes the structures will probably collapse, making it unlikely they’ll ever be removed – legacies of trash of value to no one.
Bill Ingersoll is one of the cofounders of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates.
Visit https://adirondackwilderness.org/forgotten-cabins-of-the-forest-preserve/ to view a photo gallery of all three cabin sites. Pictured here is the Otterbrook Tract cabin, photo by Bill Ingersoll.